Saturday, January 29, 2011

Follow-up: But where will we loiter?

In a previous posting regarding how games are bought and sold, I ruminated on the Friendly Local Game Store (hereafter referred to as FLGS), which I fear is in a somewhat precarious position. In a tepid economy and assailed on several fronts, simultaneously its fate is affected by how people buy games, and its fate might have an effect on the hobby itself.

Yeah, heavy stuff, I know. And I usually hate anyone writing such an article for fear of coming off like a smug, pretentious ass, especially if they turn out to be wrong. Writing that article wasn't easy. Writing the follow-up where I propose solutions has proven harder.

_____ is DYING??!?! OH NOES!

I'll say it again, because I can't stress it enough: I despise that kind of tagline, and not just for the misspellings and overuse of the shift key. The problem is that these predictions tend to be either wrong, or preposterously, hilariously wrong. And yet, I worried profusely in the article which this one is following.

The FLGS, cease to exist? Almost certainly not. Dwindle down to 5–10% of its prior population? That's a bit more likely. There might be gaming somewhere, but the average player is statistically unlikely to be living near it and have next to no way of finding it. It's not death, but if you don't live within driving distance of it, you'll be in no position to tell the difference.

The catastrophic collapse of the RPG industry is even more unlikely. What stings here is that the things which are threatening the FLGS are also helping the industry. The online storefront has put books and materials in hands farther and wider than most FLGSs can normally reach. This puts the FLGS and the online storefront in direct competition, more often than not.

There are very good reasons to keep the FLGS around. The question is, what form will it take?

It Takes Two To Tangle

A recent bit of commentary over at Penny Arcade (commentary 1, comic 1, commentary 2, comic 2, commentary 3, comic 3) suggests that in some cases, the customer isn't completely culpable. It's very hard to believe, I know. And in this case, I mean the comics—they stretch credibility. They suggest such an outrageous caricature of a businessman that the Invisible Hand should pimp-slap him back to the stone age, but despite that people will still hold their nose and attempt to do business with him rather than go elsewhere or shop online. Nobody could be that crass and condescending to their customers, or display that Basil Fawlty level of recto-craniation and still have a thriving business, could they? Could they?

Note that the second commentary actually contains the words, "This is a documentary." That answers that question. Clearly, this is what statisticians refer to as an "outlier," a point of data so anomalous and so far out from the rest of the results that it can't fit any trend.

But it serves to illustrate the possibility that for some instances of FLGS, there is room for improvement. Certainly not all of them; there are successes as well as failures. But some could do better, and some really should at least make the effort.

Okay, what are our assets?

Part of concocting new strategies for the FLGS is looking at what it already does well and capitalizing on those. In some cases, some tuning-up may be necessary.

FLGS as Social Hub

Odds are good that the FLGS you either frequent or own has some tables set up for playing, and a corkboard for customers to advertise, whether it's players looking for a game or games looking for players. The game store is positioned to act as the hub of the local gaming community. This is where informal games, formal tournaments, and conventions get talked up, advertised with flyers, etc. This is where buzz gets generated for things both inside and outside the store.

Not all social spaces are created equal, though, and some have more room for improvement than others. I'll talk about that below.

FLGS as Showroom

The FLGS can't show every possible product there is out there; there's no room. It can, however, show off the products it does have in stock in a way that no online presence can. This can mean having a rack of books that can be perused, which most stores have. It can also mean having an open box or two which can be opened and inspected, though it'd be prudent to keep those open copies in the back and bring them out when someone wants to see what a game looks like so parts don't walk off.

Tying into the "gaming space" thing above, though, perhaps the most potent sample you can deliver of a game is an actual play-through. Demos of games, run by staff or volunteers for groups of players, announced well in advance and set up in the store's available space, can generate interest in games like no generated webpage can.

FLGS as Advisor

On the one hand, one expects the lady or gentleman behind the counter to want to sell you stuff. On the other hand, one expects the sales person behind the counter to be knowledgeable about what he's selling.

Being able to answer questions about games in stock is an asset. It means customers who ask questions about games get answers and can make informed decisions. It also means they can recommend games if their customers are looking for something they can't quite define. In fancier department stores, such a position might be known as "shopper's assistant." Here, where there are so many different games and ways to play available, it just makes good sense.

FLGS as Purveyor of Solid Goods

One of the big issues facing the FLGS is the proliferation of RPGs and some magazines in PDF form. Fortunately, books are not the only things the FLGS carries. Boxed and card games can be copied, but the game experience would be sorely lacking compared to the original. And even those games that play out of books (like most RPGs) can benefit from physical accessories: Dice certainly but also maps, markers, and miniatures. Yes, they can be bought online too, but the ability to handle them physically makes them an easier purchase in person.

Potential Problems Deserve Maybe-Solutions

What follows is a list of possible solutions. Some of these are things I've seen work, others sprang forth from an imagination unhinged, dreaming of what the hobby shop could become. And in each case, I'll try to justify the suggestion. Especially in the stranger-sounding ones.

FLGS as Parcel Service

Problem: Customers shopping online, bypassing the FLGS.

Solution: Remind customers that there are advantages to ordering through the store.

People shop online for, among other things, convenience, but they don't always get it. They can place an order online, pay with credit card, and receive a parcel on their doorstep—that's the ideal, anyway. What sometimes happens is that, instead of a box with books in it, they get a wet lump (it was raining that day), or it needs a signature so all they left was a slip saying "hey we tried to deliver this but you have to sign for it so we took it back to the depot. We'll ether try to deliver it again tomorrow or hold it for pick-up, and you'd better not try to get this thing on Saturday 'cos we're closed." (Yes, I'm paraphrasing.)

What would you call a service which orders the book for you and holds it in-store until you can come in to pick it up in the evening? No signing for packages, no delivery slips in your mailbox or tags hung from your door saying that you don't get the parcel today, water damage highly unlikely... That sounds pretty convenient too.

Admittedly, what that local buyer saves in shipping and handling, he'll pay in sales tax, but depending what's being ordered and where it's ordered from, that could be a wash or a favorable exchange.

This doesn't require a lot of work. Some stores do that already, and even give the customer a small discount on special orders. It's not even a matter of a lot of new business procedures, it's just a matter of the FLGS letting the customer know that they can do this thing, and then encouraging it.

The FLGS might not recoup every sale that might be lost by not doing this; I must admit that the discount print/PDF bundle has a certain attractiveness. But it could narrow the gap.

FLGS as Remote Shopping Experience, Part I

Problem: People shopping online, bypassing the FLGS.

Solution: Fight online shopping on its own terms.

Admittedly, this one may take a greater outlay of cash and technological knowhow, but it's one of the things I lament that the typical FLGS doesn't do. In the first article, I mentioned that all the online storefront has to do is create a new row in a database, with picture, title, description, and price, to show off a product which customers can buy. The FLGS doesn't have that option.

It doesn't normally, that is. It is possible.

Above under "FLGS as Parcel Service," I propose that customers might not place special orders because they don't know that they can place special orders at all. Here, I'm suggesting that customers might not place special orders because they don't know that the FLGS can order the thing they want.

The next logical step is to post somewhere online what things the customer can special order and how much those things will cost. This could be a simple list. Or it could be a full-blown online commerce web application suite that does shopping carts, credit-card processing (or at least holding onto the numbers until the shipment comes in), and email notifications that things have arrived and are ready to be picked up in-store.

The latter of those sounds awful, doesn't it? The fact is, though, both methods (simple list and fancy-shmancy web application) require maintenance to keep up to date. A simple list will require constant tweaking, formatting, and some HTML-fu. The web application requires a lot more effort up front, but will require less skill and save the tech-savvy FLGS manager time and effort in later maintenance.

It also implies an existing web presence, but most stores these days have something like that. It becomes a matter of either upgrading, or leveraging it to maximum effect.

FLGS as Remote Shopping Experience, Part II

Problem: Some stock items, once believed popular, aren't moving out of the store.

Solution: Make the stock available online.

Here's a twisty variation to the first Remote Shopping Experience item: suppose the FLGS has the stuff in stock, in the store, but nobody's buying it? The FLGS's manager is scratching his head because he's pretty sure someone wants it, but nobody who's coming into the store now does and he'd like to get it moving out of the store to make way for more stock.

Remember that website I was talking about above, the one where the FLGS talks about what stock they have available for special order? What if they include the stock they have available in-store? Locals who are looking for something know to find it in the store, and people in remote locations who are having trouble finding the thing at least have better odds of finding it. After that, it's a matter of negotiating shipping and handling. Stock moves, shelf is reclaimed, and new stock can be brought in. Ideally, at least. Really, it's a lucky FLGS that can avoid every possible dog turd.

FLGS as Remote Social Hub

Problem: People don't come in to find out about game events

Solution: Leverage that web page some more

So the FLGS might have a web site already. I just suggested turning that web site into a commerce center, a tentacle stretching out to penetrate cyberspace right in the fold of its wallet. Or something. Anyway, that web space can also bring the community together.

A thriving news ticker loaded with upcoming events will draw some attention. People want to find a night of a particular game. They search online. They turn up the site. They find a lot of near-future events. They'll keep coming back if it's in range and worthwhile.

Some FLGSs have forums on their web sites where people can talk about their games, when they're running, what's been happening, etc. Are there enough games at the FLGS to drive that kind of traffic? If the FLGS has such a forum already, do people know it's there? If some people are coming into the store already anyway, it wouldn't hurt to mention the website there. And if people are using other services to organize events (e.g. Warhorn), the FLGS could do its players an extra service by linking to those.

FLGS as Super Social Hub, Part I

Problem: People aren't using the game space

Solution: Maybe it's your breath?

Okay, it's not a real solution, but it's intended only somewhat facetiously. Does the FLGS have a space? Does anyone who works in the FLGS play up there? What's it like? Clean, well-lit, warm, dry, and comfortable? Or is it unreasonably cold or hot or damp? Does it have tattered and stained carpet, flickering and buzzing lights, bowed tables, or folding metal chairs half of which are on the verge of collapse? How will people react upon seeing that space?

Yes, I said people, not just gamers. People are a varied lot, and their tolerances for problems in their environment will vary. Gamers tend to be the more tolerant (so much so that some have earned the subculture a stereotype); if they're coming in to play, they'll come in anyway. It's the merely game-curious people, the ones who don't yet buy much, that the FLGS should want to make comfortable in the back room or upstairs where people are playing games. This'll encourage them to try games and, hopefully, buy them.

This could mean as little as vacuuming, changing light bulbs, and making sure the bathroom has enough toilet paper and towels. (What? No bathroom? We might have found another issue.) Or it could mean maintenance, painting, and replacing worn tables, chairs, and/or carpeting. And plumbing, if you really said "no" to that bathroom question.

There's another reason to have a well-groomed function space: sponsored events and demos. Game manufacturers like showing their stuff off. Wizards of the Coast has their Wizards Play Network (formerly the RPGA, a misstep I'll rant about some other time), Steve Jackson Games has their Men in Black, Looney Labs has their Mad Lab Rabbits... Sure, there's the obvious profit motive of showing off their games to a bunch of customers, but think how much more a demo team would appreciate a space that brings in the more casual gamer too

FLGS as Super Social Hub, Part II

Problem: People aren't using the game space, or they are but they're not spending enough money.

Solution: Provide other useful products and services

Personally, I take a dim view of anyone who tries to milk their customers out of every cent they can. It stinks of desperation and tends to alienate those customers who have little disposable income and/or think your hands are cold. That said, it can be carried too far in the other way—not that the FLGS's customers are taking advantage of the store's generosity, but that there are other things that customers would be willing to pay for that the store don't carry yet.

First and most obvious, gaming can be a slow activity. Gamers can get hungry and/or thirsty. Do they have to break the action to go get food? Why not stock some food in-store? The FLGS could have a soda machine, or a refrigerated case with sodas, and a rack of chips and candy bars near the register so that people can get their snack on while they play. (And yes, I am aware this could make keeping the space clean difficult, given how some gamers eat. I never said the FLGS had to, or even could, implement all these ideas.)

Depending on the clientele, this could be taken further. An in-store cappuccino bar or panini café would be taking it to hipster extremes, but hey, a guy can dream. (And if someone does that, you don't need to leave a comment. Send pictures. Or better yet, directions.)

Here's another one, and it dovetails into current trends. Remember all those PDFs that people are buying to play with? Sometimes they're not even buying the book to go with it. And sometimes other utilities are available online which they might like to have access to through the phone, netbook, doc reader, or pad of their choice. Does the store have internet access? A wireless network? Why doesn't the FLGS lease that out to people for a few dollars a month? Again, this will depend a lot on the FLGS's customers, but I could see it working, and it could help offset other costs, like having the internet in-store in the first place.

The combination of these, taken to their fullest possible extremes, could turn the FLGS into a fusion of game store and internet café where people regularly play different kinds of games. It'd be different, to say the least. And I'm not necessarily sure it'd be a bad thing, but your actual mileage may vary.

FLGS as Service Bureau

Problem: People aren't using the game space, or they are but they're not spending money.

Solution: Provide other other useful products and services.

RPGs tend to be a paper-intensive activity, even if the players are playing from a PDF rulebook on a datapad of some sort. After all, character information has to be kept somewhere, and few games have an electronically fillable character sheet.

This means that there's a need for paper, pencils, erasers, and other mundane items alongside the dice, maps, and markers. Yes, they're probably available at the supermarket across the street, but this is about instant gratification. A box of pencils and a single stack of 50-sheet packs of loose-leaf paper by the register would speed play and provide convenience.

For an initial outlay, an in-store copier could save people the time and expense of going to the office supply store. Given the initial outlay, it might not be a profit-turner, but again, this isn't necessarily about short-term profit, this is about providing services which will make customers more likely to visit, stay, and spend money on other things. I believe the term is "loss leader."

So they're working from PDFs, yes. They may want to print specific pages from that PDF, pages that they didn't know they needed before they got there but would make things convenient now. What they need a printer. Inkjet, laser, media doesn't matter, as long as they have a way to print out selected pages. And this doesn't have to be a free service, either. It can't be a free service these days, given that gallon for gallon, printer ink costs more than champagne. This solution also requires some tech-savvy, because the FLGS has to have a way for customers to connect to that printer, or otherwise get the base documents into a computer from which it can be printed.

And finally...

There's one other thing that's been talked up in some quarters (and I'm looking at you,, and that's Print On Demand. This is where you take a set of layouts (or a PDF) and print the entire book, cover and all in one go. It's the perfect resource to print short runs of a lot of different books. It's an interesting technology, and it has the potential to change the industry, but it's Not Ready for Prime Time—I really don't think it has a proper place in the FLGS yet, and depending on the proliferation of readers, it might not. But I'll save that for another article.

Is is all really necessary??

Possibly not. But some of them couldn't hurt.

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